The Apocalypse Approaches IV
1066. The Last Anglo-Saxon King

King Edward (who was canonized in 1161, and is remembered as Edward the Confessor) died, childless, on the 5th of January 1066.[*] He was buried in his, newly consecrated, Westminster Abbey on the 6th of January.

The English version:

When he [King Edward] was sick unto death and his men stood and wept bitterly … stretching forth his hand to his governor, her [Queen Edith’s] brother, Harold, he said, “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection.” 
Vita Ædwardi Regis (2nd Section)
After his [Edward’s] interment, the under-king Harold, son of Earl Godwine, whom the king had nominated as his successor, was elected king by the chief nobles of all England; and on the same day was crowned with great ceremony by Ealdred, archbishop of York.

The Norman version:

And now unexpectedly there came a true report, the land of England was bereft of her king Edward, and his crown was worn by Harold. Not for this insane Englishman the decision of a public choice, but, on that sorrowful day when the best of kings was buried and the whole nation mourned his passing, he seized the royal throne with the plaudits of certain iniquitous supporters and thereby perjured himself. He was made king by the unholy consecration of Stigand, who had been deprived of his ministry by the justified fervour of papal anathema.

Norman sources assert that Edward had previously promised that Duke William II of Normandy (William the Bastard) would be his successor:

Edward … gratefully remembering with what generous munificence, what singular honour, what affectionate intimacy, prince William had treated him in Normandy, by all of which he was even more closely bound to the duke than by ties of kinship; nay more, remembering also with what zeal the duke had helped to restore him from exile to his kingdom, determined as a matter of honour to repay him in equal measure – and as an appropriate gift resolved to make him the heir of the crown obtained by his efforts.
William of Poitiers  (I, 14)
Edward, too, king of the English, by Divine disposition lacking an heir, had formerly sent Robert archbishop of Canterbury to the duke to nominate him as the heir to the kingdom which God had given him. Furthermore he afterwards sent to the duke Harold, the greatest of all the earls of his dominions in riches, honour and power, that he should swear fealty to him concerning Edward’s crown and confirm it with Christian oaths. Harold hastening to fulfil this mission, crossed the narrow seas …

The two Norman claims – that Edward nominated William as his heir, and that Harold travelled to Normandy and swore allegiance to William – are not mentioned at all in contemporary English sources, and the Norman sources do not provide dates.

Even the earliest Norman accounts of Harold’s journey do not fully agree. The Bayeux Tapestry begins with Earl Harold departing from King Edward (presumably it is to be understood that he has been despatched to Normandy by Edward, as the Williams of Jumièges and Poitiers aver), riding to Bosham (he is depicted at the head of his retinue with hawk on arm and hounds in front), and thence crossing the Channel “with wind-filled sails”.  He makes landfall in Ponthieu, and is promptly taken into custody by Count Guy of Ponthieu. The Tapestry doesn’t indicate why Harold landed in Ponthieu, and William of Jumièges gives no reason, but William of Poitiers implies it was a landing forced by adverse weather conditions. At any rate, Duke William hears of Harold’s plight. William’s envoys convey the duke’s displeasure to Guy, and the count delivers Harold to William.


Contrary to the Norman writers, Eadmer of Canterbury says it was actually Earl Harold’s idea to visit Duke William (to obtain the release of two family hostages, of which more later), against King Edward’s better judgement. Master Wace (Roman de Rou: ii, 108–112) was familiar with both of these stories, and couldn’t decide which to believe, so: “Whatever was the business he went upon, or whatever it was that he meant to do, Harold set out on his way”.  Somehow, “I know not how the mischief was occasioned; whether the steersman erred, or whether it was that a storm arose”, Harold went off course, and accidentally ended up in Ponthieu: “A fisherman of that country, who had been in England and had often seen Harold, watched him; and knew him, both by his face; and his speech; and went privily to Guy, the count of Ponthieu, and would speak to no other; and he told the count how he could put a great prize in his way, if he would go with him; and that if he would give him only twenty livres, he should gain a hundred by it, for he would deliver him such a prisoner, as would pay a hundred livres or more for ransom. The count agreed to his terms”.  Harold was taken prisoner, but managed to get a message through to William: “and told him of his journey; how he had set out from England to visit him, but had missed the right port; and how the count of Ponthieu had seized him … and he promised that if the duke would deliver him from his captivity, he would do whatever he wished in return.… William thought that if he could get Harold into his keeping, he might turn it to good account; so he made so many fair promises and offers to the count, and so coaxed and flattered him, that he at last gave up his prisoner.”  In Eadmer’s telling (HN I. 6–7), Harold’s ship was blown to Ponthieu by a terrifying storm. Having been captured by “the lord of the land” Harold bribed someone to take a message to Duke William. The duke at first tried to secure Harold’s release by charm, but when that failed, by threat. “So then he [the lord of Ponthieu] sent Harold and his men, but not without first having taken from them all the most valuable belongings which they had brought with them. In this way Harold came to William and was received with all honour.”
In a version of events, told by William of Malmesbury (GR II §228), Harold had no intention of crossing the Channel at all: “Harold being at his country seat at Bosham, went for recreation on board a fishing-boat, and, for the purpose of prolonging his sport, put out to sea; when a sudden tempest arising, he was driven with his companions on the coast of Ponthieu.”  Having been captured by Count Guy, Harold bribed someone to take a message to Duke William. In order to ensure William’s interest, he had invented the story: “that he had been sent into Normandy by the king, for the purpose of expressly confirming, in person, the message which had been imperfectly delivered by people of less authority; but that he was detained in fetters by Guy count of Ponthieu, and could not execute his embassy … Harold was liberated at William’s command, and conducted to Normandy by Guy in person.”

William of Jumièges (VII, 13) simply states:

Harold remained with the duke for some time, and swore fealty concerning the kingdom with many oaths, before being sent back to the king laden with gifts.

William of Poitiers, though, presents a detailed account (I, 41–42). He says that William took Harold to Rouen, where he was treated with “generous hospitality”.  Then:

At a council convened at Bonneville [Bonneville-sur-Touques] Harold publicly swore fealty to him by the sacred rite of Christians.

William of Poitiers says he has it on the authority of reliable witnesses that Harold, having sworn his oath of fealty, voluntarily committed himself to act on William’s behalf at Edward’s court, “as long as the latter lived”, and when Edward eventually died:

… he would strive with all his influence and power to bring about the succession of the English kingdom to William …

In the meantime, he would fortify Dover castle, “at his own expense”, and give it over to Norman knights – he would also build and provision castles in any other part of England that the duke required. In return, William, at Harold’s request, confirmed that he (Harold) would retain his “lands and powers”.

In William of Poitiers’ sequence of events, Harold then accompanies Duke William on campaign against Duke Conan of Brittany. In the version of events illustrated by the Bayeux Tapestry, however, the campaign in Brittany precedes Harold’s oath, which is sworn at Bayeux.[*]


According to Orderic Vitalis (Historia Ecclesiastica Book III), Harold swore his oath of fealty to Duke William at Rouen, whilst Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence, in a verse ‘Life’ of St Thomas Becket, written (in French) c.1174, says it was at Bur-le-Roi, a hunting lodge near Bayeux, that Harold swore his oath to “the Bastard”.
Between 1114 and 1120 a monk of Battle Abbey wrote that Harold, “as many say”, swore three oaths on a reliquary called “the bull’s eye” [oculus bovis] – perhaps the one under Harold’s left hand in the Tapestry illustration?  Later, Wace incorporated this into his account of Harold’s oath:
To receive the oath, he [William] caused a parliament to be called. It is commonly said that it was at Bayeux that he had his great council assembled. He sent for all the holy bodies [i.e relics] thither, and put so many of them together as to fill a whole chest, and then covered them with a pall; but Harold neither saw them, nor knew of their being there; for nought was shewn or told to him about it; and over all was a reliquary, the best that he could select; ‘bull’s eye’ [oil de boef], I have heard it called. When Harold placed his hand upon it, the hand trembled, and the flesh quivered; but he swore, and promised upon his oath, to take Ele [William’s daughter] to wife, and to deliver up England to the duke: and thereunto to do all in his power, according to his might and wit, after the death of Edward, if he should live, so help him God and the holy relics there! Many cried “God grant it!” and when Harold had kissed the saints, and had risen upon his feet, the duke led him up to the chest, and made him stand near it; and took off the chest the pall that had covered it, and shewed Harold upon what holy relics he had sworn; and he was sorely alarmed at the sight.
Roman de Rou: ii, 113–114
The name of the daughter of Duke William betrothed to Harold is not supplied by William of Poitiers. In Historia Ecclesiastica Book V, Orderic Vitalis names her Agatha, but he had previously called her Adeliza. Guernes of Pont-Sainte-Maxence calls her Rainild. William of Malmesbury did not know her name, but notes (GR II §228) she was “then a child”.
In a version of these events related by Snorri Sturluson (Heimskringla, ‘Saga of Harald Sigurdsson’ Chapter 76), it was “one summer” that Harold was sailing to Bretland, i.e. Wales, when he was driven off course, to Normandy, by a storm (no mention of Ponthieu). Harold enjoyed William’s hospitality, at Rouen, until the following spring (no mention of Brittany or the taking of oaths). Harold, after lengthy consultation with William’s wife (who was “fairer than any other woman that people had seen”), asked William for his daughter in marriage, and William agreed: “but because she was so young, then some winters’ delay was laid down until the marriage date.”

In William of Poitiers’ version (I, 46), Harold and William return from Brittany:

… the duke kept his favoured guest with him a little longer before letting him go, laden with gifts which were worthy both of him by whose command he had come [i.e. Edward] and of him whose honour he had come to augment [i.e. William]. In addition, his nephew, one of the two hostages, was released for his sake to return with him.

The two hostages held by William were Harold’s nephew, Hakon, and youngest brother, Wulfnoth. William of Poitiers says (I, 41) that they:

… had been accepted as hostages for the duke’s succession.

Later (II, 12), William of Poitiers puts words into Duke William’s mouth:

“… as he [Edward] believed me the most worthy of all his race so also he held me the most able both to support him while he lived and to govern the kingdom after his death. Assuredly this was not done without the consent of his magnates, but with the counsel of Archbishop Stigand and of Earl Godwine [of Wessex], Earl Leofric [of Mercia] and Earl Siward [of Northumbria] , all of whom confirmed by oath and pledge of hands that after Edward’s death they would receive me as lord, nor during his lifetime would they seek in any way whatever to prevent my succession to this country. He [Edward] gave me as hostages the son and grandson of Godwine. Finally, he sent Harold himself to Normandy, that he might swear in my presence what his father and the other aforesaid magnates had sworn in my absence.”

In Eadmer of Canterbury’s version of events (HN I. 6–8), it was Earl Harold’s own idea to go to Normandy, in order to obtain the release of Wulfnoth and Hakon. King Edward, though, does not think this is a good plan:

“I will have no part in this; but, not to give the impression of wishing to hinder you, I give you leave to go where you will and to see what you can do. But I have a presentiment that you will only succeed in bringing misfortune upon the whole kingdom and discredit upon yourself. For I know that the duke is not so simple as to be at all inclined to give them up to you unless he foresees that in doing so he will secure some great advantage to himself.”

Harold eventually ends up at William’s court and tells him the nature of his mission. William says that “years ago”, whilst Edward was in exile, “when they were both young” (Edward was actually about 25 years older than William), Edward had promised that, should he ever become king of England, he would nominate him, William, as his heir:

William went on to say this: “If you [Harold] on your side undertake to support me in this project and further promise that you will make a stronghold at Dover with a well of water for my use and that you will at a time agreed between us send your sister to me that I may give her in marriage to one of my nobles and that you will take my daughter to be your wife, then I will let you have your nephew now at once, and you brother safe and sound when I come to England to be king. And, if ever I am with your support established there as king, I promise that everything you ask of me which can reasonably be granted, you shall have.”  Then Harold perceived that here was great danger whatever way he turned. He could not see any way of escape without agreeing to all that William wished. So he agreed.

Harold is obliged to swear his agreement on saints’ relics. He returns to England with his nephew (whose fate, incidentally, is not known), and reports to King Edward, who, in effect, says I told you so!  Eadmer continues:

Shortly after this Edward died; and, as he had before his death provided, Harold succeeded him on the throne.

There seems little reason to doubt that Earl Harold did, probably in 1064, fetch up in Normandy, and swear an oath of some kind to Duke William —

— but the reason he was there (was Normandy actually his intended destination?) and the circumstances which required him to swear an oath are very much open to debate.

The Norman sources claim that King Edward had named Duke William as his successor, but according to Adam of Bremen, Edward, at the beginning of his reign[*], had promised Swein Estrithsson, king of Denmark (Swein II), that, even if he had sons of his own, Swein would be his heir (King Swein himself was one of Adam’s sources of information).[*] In 1057 another Edward (the son of King Edward’s half-brother, Edmund Ironside), who had been exiled by King Cnut, arrived in England at the behest of King Edward, who “had determined to make him heir to the kingdom”, says Florence of Worcester. Edward the Exile, as he is known, died very soon after his arrival in England, but he left a young son, Edgar, known as Edgar Ætheling.[*] The Vita Ædwardi Regis has King Edward, on his deathbed, handing over his kingdom into Earl Harold’s care. To some extent this is all a red herring. Although Edward’s wishes would have carried some weight, the succession was not in his gift – it was up to the English magnates to elect the new king. William of Malmesbury (GR III §238) avers that:

When king Edward died, England, fluctuating with doubtful favour, was uncertain to which ruler she should commit herself; to Harold, William, or Edgar …

It’s hard to imagine that the English establishment seriously considered meekly handing over the crown of England to the duke of Normandy, whatever promises may have been made. In terms of pedigree, Edgar Ætheling certainly had the best claim to succeed King Edward, but he was about 14 years-old, and, in the opinion of both William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis, “indolent”.[*]  On the other hand there was Earl Harold, the most powerful of the English magnates – he is titled subregulus (under-king) by Florence of Worcester – and proven military leader. Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 1066, states:

And Earl Harold succeeded to the kingdom of England, as the king had granted it to him, and men had also choosen him thereto; and he was blessed as king on Twelfth-mass day [6th January].
On taking the helm of the kingdom, he [Harold] immediately began to abolish unjust laws and make good ones; to patronise churches and monasteries; to pay particular attention and yield reverence to bishops, abbots, monks, and clerks; to show himself pious, humble, and affable to all good men: but he treated malefactors with the utmost severity, and gave general orders to his earls, ealdormen, sheriffs, and thegns to imprison all thieves, robbers, and disturbers of the kingdom; and he himself laboured by sea and by land for the protection of his country.
Florence of Worcester (s.a. 1066)

It appears that the Northumbrians, having recently overthrown their earl, Tostig, were somewhat reluctant to accept his brother as king. (Only a couple of months before his death, King Edward had been obliged to capitulate to Northumbrian rebels. Tostig had been outlawed, and had sailed to Flanders.[*]) To win them over, Harold travelled to the North with Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester:

The report of Wulfstan’s holiness had reached even the most remote peoples, and he was thought capable of softening any and every arrogance. Things turned out in such a way as to confirm this view; the Northumbrians, unconquerable in war, and as spirited as their ancestors had always been, made no difficulty about giving way to Harold’s rule out of respect for the bishop.
William of Malmesbury Vita Wulfstani (I, 16)

It was probably at this time that Harold married Ealdgyth, the sister of Earls Edwin (of Mercia) and Morcar (who had been chosen by the Northumbrians themselves to replace Tostig). It seems reasonable to suppose the marriage of Harold and Ealdgyth – an alliance of England’s premier families – had been a condition of Edwin and Morcar supporting Harold after Edward’s death.

Meanwhile, across the Channel:

Duke William took counsel with his vassals and determined to avenge the wrong by arms and in arms to claim his inheritance, although many magnates argued persuasively against the enterprise as too hazardous and far beyond the resources of Normandy.… Yet we learn that in all deliberations everyone gave way to the wisdom of the prince, as if he knew in advance by divine inspiration what should and should not be done.…
There is not space to relate in detail how he carefully organized the building of ships and their fitting out with arms and men, provisions and all other necessities of war, and how the enthusiasm of all Normandy was kindled.… A large force of volunteers also assembled from other lands, partly attracted by the well known liberality of the duke but all confident in the justice of his cause.

To reinforce “the justice of his cause”, Duke William sought, and received, the blessing of Pope Alexander II (1061–73), who sent him a papal banner to carry into battle. He also secured a promise of assistance, if requested, from Henry IV, the German king (who was not yet 16 years-old), and:

Swein king of the Danes pledged his faith through envoys, but [much later, in 1069] showed himself rather the faithful supporter of his [Duke William’s] enemies …
William of Poitiers (II, 3)

The Thunderbolt of the North

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Manuscripts C and D:

In this year [1066] King Harold came from York to Westminster, at the Easter which was after the Midwinter in which the king died; and Easter was then on the day the 16th of the Kalends of May [i.e. on the 16th April]. Then was seen over all England such a sign in the heavens as no man ever before saw. Some men said it was the star cometa, which some men call the ‘haired’ star;[*] and it first appeared on the eve of Litania major, the 8th of the Kalends of May [24th April], and so shone all the week. And shortly after, Earl Tostig came from beyond sea [“from Flanders”, Florence of Worcester] into the Isle of Wight, with as large a fleet as he could get; and there he was paid both in money and provisions.


This is the first appearance of Harold’s brother Tostig in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle since he had left England some six months previously. What had he been up to?  Well, both Snorri Sturluson and Orderic Vitalis claim to know. Their stories, however, contain major errors, and do not agree.
In Snorri Sturluson’s tale (Heimskringla, ‘Saga of Harald Sigurdsson’ Chapters 75–79), Tostig, who is wrongly portrayed as the elder brother (“chief over the king of the English’s army, and he was the defender of the country when the king started to get old”), is furious when Harold (“it was his duty to watch over all the royal treasuries”) manages to get himself elected king following King Edward’s death (5th January 1066), and tries, unsuccessfully, to get the decision overturned so that he can be elected himself. Harold strips Tostig of all his power. He refuses to be Harold’s underling, and goes-off to Flanders. In reality, Tostig, earl of Northumbria, had been obliged to take himself into exile in Flanders at the beginning of November 1065.[*] Anyway, after spending “a short time” in Flanders, Tostig travels to Frisia, and then to Denmark. He offers to help his cousin, Swein Estrithsson, king of Denmark, conquer England: “just like your uncle Cnut.”[*]  Swein, however, declines Tostig’s offer, saying he is “an inferior man” to Cnut, and that it is as much as he can do to keep Denmark out of Norway’s clutches. Disappointed by Swein’s lack of spirit, Tostig moves on to Norway. The Norwegian king, Harald Sigurdsson (i.e. Harald Hardrada) had spent most of his reign at war with Swein Estrithsson for control of Denmark. They had, however, agreed terms a couple of years previously. Since then Harald had had to deal with internal dissent, but by the time Tostig arrived at his court he was free to consider a new undertaking. Previously (‘Saga of Magnus the Good’ Chapter 6), Snorri had told how Harthacnut (d.1042), Edward’s predecessor, and Magnus Olafsson (Magnus the Good, d.1047), Harald’s predecessor, had agreed that if one of them died without a son, then the survivor would inherit the kingdom of the other.[*] Tostig now reminds Harald of this agreement, and says:
“King Magnus did not fight to conquer England because the people of the country wanted to have Edward as king. If you want to gain England, then I can bring it about that the majority of the leaders in England will be your friends and supporters.” … After this the king [Harald Sigurdsson] and the earl [Tostig] spoke together long and often. They settled on this plan, that they should in the summer go to England and conquer the country. King Harald sent word all over Norway and called out troops for an expedition … Earl Tostig sailed in the spring west to Flanders to meet up with the troops that had gone with him from out in England and the others that had joined him from both England and there in Flanders.
‘Saga of Harald Sigurdsson’ Chapter 79
Orderic Vitalis (Historia Ecclesiastica Book III) also wrongly identifies Tostig as the older brother and has him going to Flanders after Harold became king, but the tale is given a pro-Norman spin.
… [Tostig] seeing that the wickedness of his brother had prevailed, and that the kingdom was groaning under every kind of oppression, took the matter to heart, resolved to oppose him, and openly declared war on him.
Harold deprived Tostig of his earldom (incorrectly identified as the erstwhile earldom of their father, Godwine, i.e. Wessex, which had, in fact, passed to Harold), and banished him. Tostig crossed to Flanders, where he deposited his wife:
He himself hurried to Normandy, boldly rebuked Duke William for allowing his perjured vassal [i.e. Harold] to rule, and swore that he would faithfully secure the crown for him if he would cross to England with a Norman army.
ii, 120
(Tostig and William were related by marriage. Tostig was married to Judith, who was a half-sister of Count Baldwin V of Flanders. William was married to Matilda, who was Count Baldwin’s daughter.[*])
Whilst William was formulating his invasion plans:
… Tostig gained the duke’s permission to return to England, and promised faithfully that he and all his friends would give him every assistance.
ii, 123
Tostig found the English coast too heavily defended to attempt a landing (“his forces were too weak to give battle”), and he was prevented from returning to Normandy by unfavourable winds. Having been buffeted about by contrary weather, Tostig ended up in Norway.
As he was well received by the king and saw that he could not possibly fulfil the promises he had made to Duke William, he changed his plans …
ii, 123/4
Tostig tells King Harald:
“… I seek help from you as your liegeman, knowing that you have a strong army and every military virtue. Destroy my brother’s upstart strength in war, keep half England for yourself, and let me have the other half to hold as your faithful vassal as long as I live.”
ii, 124
Harald took the bait, and spent the next six months preparing to invade England. Orderic implies that Tostig remained in Norway with Harald during that time.

Manuscript C continues:

And he then went thence, and did harm everywhere by the sea-coast where he could approach, until he came to Sandwich. —
— Then it was made known to King Harold, who was in London, that Tostig his brother was come to Sandwich. He [Harold] then gathered so great a ship-force, and also a land-force, as no king here in the land had before gathered; because it had for truth been said to him that Duke William from Normandy, king Edward’s kinsman, would come hither and subdue this land, all as it afterwards came to pass.[*] When Tostig learned that – that King Harold was proceeding towards Sandwich – he went from Sandwich, and took some of the boatmen with him, some willingly, some unwillingly; and then went north …
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript C
Then they overran Brunemue.
That country they confounded.
Great damage and great misery
They caused there and elsewhere.
Then they went to Humber with their fleet.
Geffrei Gaimar (5169–5173)
… came Earl Tostig into the Humber with sixty ships …
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscripts D and E
… and there harried in Lindsey, and there slew many good men. When Earl Edwin [of Mercia] and Earl Morcar [of Northumbria; Edwin’s brother] realized that, they came thither, and drove him from the land …
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript C
But the Flemings, when they saw this,
Departed, and failed Tostig.
They went back to their land laden
With the plunder of miserable English.
Geffrei Gaimar (5185–5188)
And the boatmen forsook him; and he went to Scotland with 12 small vessels …
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscripts D and E
… and the king of the Scots [Malcolm III ‘Canmore’[*]] gave him asylum, and aided him with provisions; and he there abode all the summer.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript C

Meanwhile, in anticipation of William’s invasion, Harold had waited at Sandwich whilst his fleet assembled. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript C:

And when his fleet was gathered, he went to the Isle of Wight, and there lay all the summer and harvest-time; and a land-force was kept everywhere by the sea, —
— though at the end it availed naught. When it was the Nativity of St Mary [8th September] the men’s provisions were gone, and no man could longer keep them there. The men were then allowed to go home, and the king rode up, and the ships were driven to London, and many perished before they came thither. —
— When the ships were come home, came King Harald [Sigurdsson] from Norway, north into the Tyne unawares with a very large ship-army – no little one, it might be  ____  or more. And Earl Tostig came to him with all that he had got, as they had before settled …

Harald Sigurdsson, king of Norway (Harald III), is called “the thunderbolt of the north” by Adam of Bremen (III, 16), but he is certainly better known as Harald Hardrada.[*] In Snorri Sturluson’s telling, Harald left Orkney, sailed past Scotland and the Tyne:

… and came to land there where it is called Cleveland [the north-eastern corner of Yorkshire]. There he went ashore and immediately made raids and subjected the land to himself, meeting no resistance. After that King Harald made for Scarborough and fought there with the citizens. He went up onto the cliff that is situated there and had a great fire made there and set ablaze. And when the fire was burning, they took great forks and flung the fire down into the town. Then one building after another caught fire. Then the whole place went up in flames. The Norwegians slew many people there, and took all the wealth they got hold of. There was then nothing else the English people could do, if they were to stay alive, but submit to King Harald. He then subjected all the land to himself wherever he went. After that King Harald made his way with the whole army south along the coast and landed by Holderness. There he was met by an assembled force, and King Harald fought a battle there and was victorious.
‘Saga of Harald Sigurdsson’ Chapter 83
They [Harald Hardrada and Tostig] hastened their course and entered the river Humber, and then sailing up the river Ouse against the stream, landed at a place called Riccall.
Florence of Worcester
When it was announced to King Harold in the south, when he had come from on ship-board, that Harald, king in Norway, and Earl Tostig had landed near York, he went northward, by day and by night, as speedily as he could gather his force.
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript C
But before his arrival the two brother-earls, Edwin and Morcar, at the head of a large army, fought a battle with the Norwegians on the northern bank of the river Ouse [“at Fulford”, adds Symeon of Durham] near York, on Wednesday, being the vigil of the feast-day of St Matthew the Apostle [i.e. 20th September], and they fought so bravely at the onset that many of the enemy were overthrown. But after a long contest the English were unable to withstand the attacks of the Norwegians, and fled with great loss; and more were drowned in the river than slain in the field. The Norwegians remained masters of the field of carnage …
Florence of Worcester


Snorri Sturluson provides a dramatic account of the battle. There are a couple of major factual errors, but the actual battle description is not at odds with Florence of Worcester’s record.
Heimskringla, ‘Saga of Harald Sigurdsson’ Chapters 84–86:
At this time the earls were up in York, Morcar and his brother Earl Waltheof, and had an invincible force. —
Morcar’s brother was, of course, Edwin, earl of Mercia, not Waltheof. Earl Waltheof was the son of, erstwhile earl of Northumbria, Siward. When Siward died, in 1055, Waltheof was probably still a child, and Tostig became earl of Northumbria. At the time of Fulford, Waltheof evidently held an earldom that included Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire. It is possible he took part in the battle, though no English source mentions it.
— King Harald was lying in the Ouse when the earls’ army made their way down. Then King Harald went ashore and began to draw up his troops. One wing of his formation was stationed forward on the bank of the river, and the other extended up inland to a certain dyke [i.e watercourse]. It was a deep fen, broad and full of water. The earls let their formation move slowly down along the river with the whole host. The king’s standard was close to the river. There the formation was very deep, but it was shallowest by the dyke and those troops were the most unreliable. Then the earls advanced down along the dyke. Then the wing of the Norwegian formation that reached to the dyke gave way, and the English men pushed forward there after them, thinking that the Norwegians must be going to flee. Morcar’s standard advanced there.
So when King Harald saw that the formation of English men was come down along the dyke opposite them, then he had the war trumpets blown and urged on the army vigorously, then letting the standard ‘Land-waster’ be carried forward, pressing the attack so strongly that everything gave way before them. Then the casualties in the earls’ troops became heavy. Then their troops soon turned in flight, some fleeing up and down along the river, but most of the host leapt out into the dyke. The dead lay there so thickly that the Norwegians were able to walk across the dyke dry-shod. Earl Morcar perished there. —
Oh no he didn’t!  Morcar may have been wounded but he was certainly not dead.
— So says Stein Herdisarson:
Many troops perished in the river.
Submerged, men drowned.
Soon lay no few soldiers
encircling young Morcar.
The forward lord of men pursued
the flight; before the valiant
ruler the host rushed headlong.…
This poem was composed by Stein Herdisarson about King Harald’s son Olaf, and in it he mentions that Olaf was in the battle with his father King Harald. This is spoken of in ‘Harald’s Poem’ too:
There lay fallen
in the fen below
the host of Waltheof
hewn by weapons,
so that war-bold
Norwegians might
cross walking
on corpses alone.
Earl Waltheof and the troops that got away fled up to the city of York. There was a very great slaughter there. The battle was on Wednesday, the next day before Matheusmass [i.e. on 20th September].
Earl Tostig had come from the south from Flanders to King Harald as soon as he got to England, and the earl was in all these battles. It then turned out as he had said to Harald before this meeting, that multitudes of people thronged to them in England. These were relations and friends of Earl Tostig, and it was a great enhancement of the king’s forces.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript C:

And then, after the fight, Harald king of Norway and Earl Tostig went to York, with as many folk as to them seemed good. And they were given hostages from the town, and also helped with provisions, —
— and so they went thence aboard ship, and agreed to full peace, on condition that they [the men of York] should all go south with him [Harald] and subdue this land. Then, during this, came Harold king of the English, with all his force, on the Sunday [24th September], to Tadcaster, and there arrayed his fleet; —
— and then on Monday [25th September] went out through York. And Harald king of Norway and Earl Tostig, and their troop, were gone from their ships beyond York to Stamford Bridge, because it had been promised them as certain, that there, from all the shire, hostages would be brought to meet them.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript D:

Then came Harold, our king, on the Northmen unawares, —
— and met with them beyond York, at Stamford Bridge, with a large army of English folk; and there during the day was a very severe fight on each side.

A later (12th century) hand has appended an anecdote to Manuscript C of the Chronicle:

Then was there one of the Norwegians who withstood the English folk, so that they could not pass over the bridge or gain the victory. —
— Then an Englishman aimed at him with an arrow, but it availed naught; and then came another under the bridge, and pierced him through under the corselet. Then came Harold king of the English over the bridge, and his force onward with him, and there made great slaughter of both Norwegians and Flemings.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscript D:

There were slain Harald Fairhair and Earl Tostig, and the Northmen who were there remaining were put to flight; and the English hotly slew them from behind until some of them came to their ships, some were drowned, and some also burnt, and thus variously perished, so that few were left; and the English had possession of the place of carnage. —
— The king then gave quarter to Olaf, the Northmen’s king’s son, and to their bishop, and to the earl of Orkney [“Paul, earl of Orkney, who had been sent off with a portion of the army to guard the fleet”, Florence of Worcester], and to all those who were left in the ships; and they then went up to our king, and swore oaths, that they would ever observe peace and friendship to this land; and the king let them go home with 24 ships.


In Snorri Sturluson’s story (Heimskringla, ‘Saga of Harald Sigurdsson’ Chapters 86–93), Harald Sigurdsson is said to have returned to his ships, on the Sunday evening, in high spirits, having achieved the surrender of York without having to fight for it.
That same evening after sunset there came to the city from the south King Harold Godwinesson with an invincible army. He rode into the city with the goodwill and consent of all the citizens. All the gates of the city and all the routes in were occupied, so that no information could reach the Norwegians.
Chapter 86
Harold Godwinesson, the English king, arrived at Tadcaster, not York, on the Sunday.
On Monday morning, after breakfast, Harald Sigurdsson prepared to march to York, to appoint the officers who would govern the town. He divided his army – two thirds would march to York, the other third would remain with the ships (“there were left behind to guard the ships the king’s son Olaf, and the Orkney earls Paul and Erlend, and Eystein Orri”). The Norwegians were blissfully unaware of the English king’s proximity:
The weather was now extremely good and the sun was hot. The men left behind their mailcoats, and marched up with shields and helmets and halberds and girded with swords, and many also had arrows and bows and were very merry.
Chapter 87
As they approached York, they became aware of an armed band advancing towards them:
They saw the cloud of dust raised by the horses and beneath it fair shields and white mailcoats.… and the troop turned out to be larger the closer it got, and to look at it all seemed just like a heap of bits of ice with the glittering of their weapons.
Chapter 87
The troop turns out to be Harold Godwinesson’s English forces (“an invincible army, both horsemen and men on foot”).
Of course, this is incorrect. Harold Godwinesson surprised Harald Sigurdsson’s forces at Stamford Bridge, where they were awaiting hostages from all of Yorkshire.
Harald Sigurdsson sends to the ships for reinforcements, and begins to arrange his men for battle:
… King Harald drew up his troops, making the battle line long and not deep. Then he curved the wings round backwards so that they met. It then formed a wide circle and a thick one, and the same everywhere all round the outside, shield against shield and the same above their heads, but the king’s company was within the circle and the standard was there too. It was a picked troop. In a separate place was Earl Tostig with his company. He had a different standard. It was drawn up in this way, because the king knew that mounted men were accustomed to ride forwards in small detachments and withdraw immediately. So the king says that his company and the earl’s company should move forward to where the greatest need was. “And our bowmen shall also be there with us, and those that are standing foremost shall set the butts of their spears in the ground, and set the points before the breasts of the riders, if they ride at us, and those that are standing closest, they are to set their spear points before the breasts of the horses.”
Chapter 89
Though not completely impossible, it was not the usual English practice to use cavalry tactics. Master Wace (Roman de Rou: ii, 262) notes: “The English knew not how to joust, nor bear arms on horseback, but fought with axes and pikes [gisarmes].”  It looks suspiciously as if details from the forthcoming battle of Hastings have been borrowed, to liven up the account of Stamford Bridge.
There follows an unlikely episode during which Tostig declines his brother’s inducements to abandon the Norwegian king.
Now the battle begins, and the English men launch a charge at the Norwegians. Their resistance was harsh. It became difficult for the English men to charge the Norwegians because of their shooting at them, and they rode in a circle round them. There was at first sporadic fighting as long as the Norwegians kept their formation properly, but the English men charged them hard and immediately withdrew, when they could not achieve anything. So when the Norwegians saw this, and felt the charges had been made weakly, then they attacked them and tried to pursue the rout, but when they had broken from the shield wall, then the English men charged them from all sides and used spears and missiles on them. So when King Harald Sigurdsson saw this, he stepped forward in the battle to where the the fighting was densest. There was then the most violent of battles, and many troops on both sides fell. Then King Harald Sigurdsson got so furious that he leapt forward right out of the formation and struck with both hands. There stood against him then neither helmet not mailcoat. Then all those that were closest took to flight. The English men were then right on the point of fleeing.… King Harald Sigurdsson was struck in the throat by an arrow. That was his death wound. Then he fell and all the company that had advanced with him, except those that pulled back, and they held the standard. There was then still the harshest of battles. Then Earl Tostig went beneath the royal standard.
Chapter 92
During a lull in the fighting, Harold Godwinesson offers a truce to Tostig and the remaining Norwegians. The offer is roundly rejected, and battle is rejoined. Strangely, Snorri makes no mention that Tostig was killed soon after, though other versions of the saga (Morkinskinna, Fagrskinna) do.
Eystein Orri arrived at that moment from the ships with the troops that belonged to him. They had full mailcoats on. Eystein then took hold of King Harald’s standard the ‘Land-waster’. Now the battle began a third time, and it was of the bitterest. English men were now falling in large numbers, and they were on the point of fleeing. This battle was known as ‘Orri’s storm’. Eystein and his men had gone in such a rush from the ships that they were already so tired as to be almost out of action before they got to the battle, but after that they were in such a fury that they did not protect themselves as long as they could stand up. In the end they threw off their mailcoats. It was then easy for the English men to find somewhere to land their blows, but some completely collapsed and died without being wounded. Nearly all the high-ranking men of the Norwegians fell. This was in the latter part of the day. It turned out, as might have been expected, that they still did not all act the same, many fled, and there were many too that were able to get away as the result of various pieces of good fortune. It had also got dark in the evening before all the killing was over.
Chapter 93
Later (Chapter 99), Snorri mentions: “One winter after King Harald’s fall his body was conveyed from the west from England and north to Nidaros [Trondheim] and was buried in Mary-church, which he had had built.”  According to another version of this saga (Morkinskinna), the body was brought from England by Tostig’s son, Skuli. A different Norse source (Ágrip), however, says that Harald’s son Olaf was allowed to take his father’s body with him when he was granted safe-conduct from Stamford Bridge by Harold Godwinesson.

Orderic Vitalis comments:

Travellers cannot fail to recognize the field, for a great mountain of dead men’s bones still lies there and bears witness to the terrible slaughter on both sides.
Historia Ecclesiastica Book III (ii, 144)

Given that the Norwegian invaders arrived with upwards of three hundred ships and the survivors left in just twenty or so, the scale of the English victory is apparent. However, Harold did not have long to rest on his laurels.

Having lived a devout and chaste life (or so it was claimed), and having died peacefully, Edward is designated a Confessor. This epithet distinguishes him from an earlier King Edward who was also considered to be a saint, but who had died a violent death – Edward the Martyr (the half-brother of Edward the Confessor’s father), who was murdered in 978.
A white, scarf-like, vestment worn by the pope, and bestowed by him on archbishops as a symbol of delegated papal authority.
William of Poitiers notes: “Indeed it was not expected that Edward, already ill, would live much longer.”
The Bayeux Tapestry places this curious scene after Harold’s first arrival at William’s palace and before he and William depart for Brittany. The woman, perhaps a nun, appears to be being molested by a cleric. The caption simply says: “where one cleric and Ælfgifu”.  The well endowed gentleman in the lower border, mimicking the cleric’s actions, seems to emphasize the improper nature of what is occurring. Presumably the meaning of this scandalous scene would have been well understood by a contemporary viewer, but today it is a puzzle.
Harold is shown with a moustache in the Bayeux Tapestry, but on his coins he is portrayed with a trim beard.
Son of Harold’s late older brother, Swein (d.1052).
Orderic’s additions to William of Jumièges’ Gesta Normannorum Ducum, completed c.1113.
Eadmer: “But the king, suspicious of Godwine’s wiles, stood out against it and would not consent to peace unless he were first given hostages as a security.”  Manuscript E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes that hostages were handed over by both parties prior to the meeting. See The Mighty Fallen … and Risen Again.
See Harold: A Second Judas Maccabeus.
Æthel (Æþel) means ‘noble’ (it features as an element of many Anglo-Saxon names), and an ætheling is a male of royal blood who is an eligible candidate for the throne.
The Liber Vitae of New Minster Winchester (British Library MS Stowe 944) was produced in 1031, but names were subsequently added to it. In one group of names, Edgar Ætheling (Eadgar clitoclito being the Latin equivalent of ætheling) directly follows King Edward and Queen Edith, demonstrating that Edgar was considered a potential successor to Edward whilst the king still lived.
Swein is generally called, by modern English historians anyway, Swein Estrithsson (rather than Swein Ulfsson), after his mother, who, like King Cnut, was the child of Swein Forkbeard, king of Denmark and, briefly in 1013–14, England (see The Wrath of God).
See Edward: King, as was his Natural Right.
Orderic Vitalis Historia Ecclesiastica Book X (IV, 70).
William of Malmesbury GR III §251.
In its Liber Vitae (Book of Life), a religious establishment would record the names of its supporters. The idea being that the people named in a Liber Vitae on earth would also be named in the heavenly Liber Vitae, which would be opened on Judgement Day.
Swein is generally called, by modern English historians anyway, Swein Estrithsson (rather than Swein Ulfsson), after his mother, Estrith, who, like Cnut, was a child of Swein Forkbeard. Harold and Tostig’s mother, Gytha, was a sister of Swein Estrithsson’s father, Ulf.
Orderic, wrongly, calls him Harald Fairhair. The same mistake is found in Florence of Worcester, William of Malmesbury (Gesta Regum Anglorum), Geffrei Gaimar and Manuscript D of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Harald Fairhair, who ruled at the end of 9th and beginning of the 10th centuries, is regarded as the first king of Norway.
Actually, Orderic – perhaps following Florence of Worcester, who, s.a. 1051, makes the same identification – makes Tostig’s wife, Judith, a daughter of Baldwin V, and hence the sister of Duke William’s wife, Matilda. The Vita Ædwardi Regis says (I, 4) that Judith was Baldwin V’s sister.  It is generally accepted that Judith was, in fact, Baldwin V’s half-sister – the daughter of Baldwin V’s father, Baldwin IV, and his second wife, who was a daughter of Duke Richard II of Normandy (Duke William’s grandfather).
It has since been calculated that this was a visit of Halley’s Comet.
For dramatic effect, the Bayeux Tapestry places the comet immediately after Harold’s coronation.
Copsig had been Tostig’s lieutenant in Northumbria.
Actually, he is titled Earl William (Willelm eorl) in the Chronicle.
Perhaps revealing a difference in the sympathies of the annalist, Manuscript D has in place of the highlighted phrase, simply, “William the Bastard”.
Frank Stenton, in his Anglo-Saxon England (Third Edition, 1971), Chapter 16, takes this to be: “the mouth of the Burnham river in Norfolk”.
Essentially, the northern half of modern Lincolnshire. Florence of Worcester says Tostig “burned many vills” there.
See Toil and Trouble.
William was king to the author of the Domesday Book entry, but not, of course, at the time of these events.
Edward A. Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England, Its Causes and Its Results Vol. 3, Second Edition, Revised (1875), Chapter 14.
Sir Frank Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, Third Edition (1971), Chapter 16.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, edited by Dorothy Whitelock with David C. Douglas and Susie I. Tucker (1961).
Incidentally, the Bosworth-Toller dictionary of Old English (entry for fylcian) supports the Whitelock reading, translating his lið fylcade as “drew up his force”.
The annalist’s enthusiasm is apparent.
Manuscript C proper finishes, mid sentence (at the end of a page), during its account of Stamford Bridge. The later scribe completes the account, mainly with the anecdote, on a supplementary leaf. This ends Manuscript C.
A case of mistaken identity. Harald Fairhair, who ruled at the end of 9th and beginning of the 10th centuries, is regarded as the first king of Norway.
Harold Sigurdsson apparently did not become known as Harald Hardrada (Haraldr harðráði) until around a couple of centuries after his death. According to Alison Finlay*: “The nickname harðráði is not used in the Old Norse texts until it is added in chapter headings in thirteenth-century manuscripts of Heimskringla”.  It is usually translated along the lines of ‘hard-ruler’ or ‘ruthless’, but Alison Finlay suggests that harðráði is better translated as ‘strong-minded’ or ‘resolute’.
* ‘History and Fiction in the King’s Sagas: The Case of Haraldr Harðráði’, in Saga-Book Vol. 39 (2015).
The Vita Ædwardi Regis qui apud Westmonasterium requiescit (Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster) survives in a single, incomplete (eight pages are evidently missing), manuscript of c.1100 (BL Harley 526). It was commissioned by Queen Edith (d.1075), wife of King Edward and daughter of Earl Godwine. The anonymous author was probably a monk from the monastery of Saint-Bertin, at Saint-Omer in Flanders (now France), working in England. The work falls into two distinct sections. The first is historical in nature, and, in fact, King Edward is almost an incidental character – the focus being on Edith’s family. This section would appear to have been begun in the autumn of 1065 and abandoned during 1066 (Edward’s death in January 1066 is the last event mentioned), as the traumatic events that destroyed the family unfolded. The second section, being concerned with manifestations of Edward’s sanctity, is in-effect a saint’s ‘Life’ in embryo. The indications are that it was composed in 1067.
William of Jumièges completed the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (Deeds of the Dukes of the Normans) c.1070–1. He dedicated it to the 7th duke of the Normans, William II, who was, by that time of course, William the Conqueror, king of the English.
Gesta Regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England).
In the Historia Novorum in Anglia (History of Recent Events in England). Eadmer (an Englishman, born shortly before the Norman Conquest) was a monk at Christ Church Canterbury (indeed, he had been there since boyhood). He became a close aide to Anselm (St Anselm), archbishop of Canterbury 1093–1109. The Historia is primarily concerned with Anselm’s career, though, as Eadmer notes in the preface: “My story will also include a number of other occurrences which took place in England … occurrences of which we do not think it right that those who come after us should be deprived of all knowledge, so far as it is within our power to prevent it.”  The Historia, as first produced, concluded with the aftermath of Anselm’s death in 1109, and was completed by 1114. Eadmer later added extra material, concluding in 1122.
Page number in Martin Rule’s edition of the Historia Novorum in Anglia (1884).
In the Brevis Relatio de Guillelmo noblissimo comite Normannorum (Brief History of the Most Noble William, Count of the Normans).
Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla – a collection of sagas chronicling the kings of Norway, written in Old Norse – was composed about 1230. The work begins with the statement: “In this book I have had written old stories about those rulers who have held power in the Northern lands and have spoken the Scandinavian language, as I have heard them told by learned men, and some of their genealogies according to what I have been taught, some of which is found in the records of paternal descent in which kings and other men of high rank have traced their ancestry, and some is written according to old poems or narrative songs which people used to use for their entertainment. And although we do not know how true they are, we know of cases where learned men of old have taken such things to be true.”
The Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum (Deeds of Bishops of the Hamburg Church) was written between 1072 and 1076, though Adam continued to revise it until his death c.1081.
Volume and page of Augustus Le Prevost’s five volume edition of the Historia Ecclesiastica (1838–1855).
William based his Latin ‘Life’ of Wulfstan (bishop of Worcester 1062–95) on a, now lost, vernacular ‘Life’ written by one Coleman, Wulfstan’s chaplain of fifteen years. (Wulfstan was canonized in 1203.)
Anglo-Norman chronicler Geffrei Gaimar wrote his Estoire des Engleis (History of the English), for a Lincolnshire patroness, round-about 1140. It is the earliest known historical work to have been written in the French language, and is in verse (actually, octosyllabic rhymed couplets). In fact, the Estoire des Engleis is the latter part of a longer work, but the earlier part has not survived. The existing work covers the period from the arrival in Britain of Cerdic (495) to the death of William Rufus (1100). Up to 959, it is based on a lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon, first produced his Historia Anglorum (History of the English) about 1130. He later revisited the work – revising and extending – several times. The final version concludes with the accession of Henry II in 1154.
Volume and page of Frédéric Pluquet’s two volume edition of the Roman de Rou (1827).
Stamford Bridge